KYLIE THOMAS'S CHILDREN had been on the roof since early morning. She had heard them, vaguely, tapping at the edges of her consciousness, as she tried to hold on to sleep, even as it disappeared. She loved sleep, loved the act of being unconscious to pain, to trouble, to each and every tap that felt like a demand. Children wanted everything! All the time, all at once! If she'd realised what a child was before she accidentally made one, she would have run a mile. She would have run so fast that Russell Woodbridge would never have caught her, would never have kissed her rushing-by face or grabbed her flying-in-the-wind hair. His skinny white body would never have pinned her flat.
She heard Nixon crying. Bloody Nixon, born whinger, crying when he came out, starting as he meant to go on. Nixon, her first born, skinny and long as a rabbit, crying on the roof. Why not cry in the kitchen instead? On the floor, where he usually laid himself, full-length in front of the fridge to be exact, his mouth open so that you could see the black pit leading into his gullet. Sometimes she wondered what she could stuff in there to stop the sound: honey? Lollies? Her fist? He had the largest pair of tonsils she had ever seen: two fat glistening nubs of flesh decorating either side of his throat, two undulating, pulsing, alien attachments that fascinated her. Whoever thought tonsils could appear so alive, so full of their own intentions? At least, she assumed they were his tonsils – she couldn't think of what else they might be. She knew she didn't know much about anything, not really, so now she thought about it she wasn't even sure they were tonsils.
Anyway, how did she come to be thinking about Nixon's tonsils? How did she come to be lying in bed at eight o'clock in a hot house in Ningi, her children above her on the roof? When she was pregnant with Nixon, holding herself in secret readiness and nursing fond hopes that Russell Woodbridge wasn't a dickhead, she pictured herself by a window in one of those baby's rooms all kitted out in blue-checked curtains for a boy, pink for a girl, with those painted wooden alphabet numbers dotted about the room. She imagined a room much like the one in Mrs Reynold's house she had seen when, briefly, she had a cleaning job there. The baby was called Charlotte or Madeleine or Henrietta, some name out of an old-fashioned book, and her room was like something out of a magazine or a movie, all fresh and uninhabited, as if a baby never shat itself or vomited up its food or had a pair of slick, fleshy, undulating nubs of flesh in its throat. Whenever she caught a glimpse of that lucky baby, dressed in clean clothes with a hat on its fat head, going out to happy-clappy music class or playgroup or wherever it went with its pretty blond nanny, Kylie thought it looked more like a doll than a baby. She bet Nicole Kidman's baby looked like that too, with a trillion nannies looking after it so that Nicole never saw shit or vomit or tonsils or heard her children crying above her on the roof.
She sat up and reached for a fag. She hadn't smoked, not once, during the whole time she was pregnant with Nixon. She waited for him as if waiting for Christmas or her birthday, for some special treat that would have her up before the sun, expecting everything. She was a nong like that, always thinking that this time her mum really would remember to get her something she really wanted, a bloody Barbie when she was eight or a pair of those sunglasses everyone had when she was sixteen and she was the only one who didn't. You'd think that by now her high hopes would be low hopes but she knew that even right this very second, smoking a fag in bed with the whole useless day stretched out empty ahead, some part of her still believed in deliverance.
God, she hated living in Ningi. She hated its flat, boring streets of nothingness, punctuated only by the sound of cars passing through on the way to somewhere else. She'd come here as a stopgap, because the rent was so cheap, and now she knew it was cheap for a reason. It was cheap because no one wanted to live here, no one except no-hopers or people like herself, down on their luck, chicks whose blokes had disappeared or ugly blokes whose missus had run off with a truck driver. Ningi, nowhere, on the road to Bribie Island, full of pensioners and down-and-outers or English people who mistook it for paradise because they didn't know what a proper beach was. A proper beach had proper waves, not piddling flops of water from an expanse resembling a bay rather than an ocean, a beach hemmed in by Moreton Island.
Kylie had once been the prettiest girl in Ipswich. While there had been no actual judging of this fact, no competition that lined up girls to measure the rise of cheekbone or the fleshy curve of a lip, for years it had been generally accepted that Kyle Graham, of 14 Forbes Street, Ipswich, was the prettiest girl in town. Before she'd put on weight after she had the boys, she had taken pleasure in walking up and down Ipswich Road wearing her smallest shorts low on her hips, and she remembered the hinge of her hips, the way she could feel each happy part of herself, all fitting together, propelling her into some unknown happiness up ahead. She might have been walking straight toward it, so easy and sure and confident was her step, the swing of her legs, the arch of her feet. She had white, even teeth, straighter than Debbie Hogan's, who'd worn braces for a whole year. She had thick black eyelashes that didn't need mascara, and when she smiled at Russell Woodbridge who had yet to reveal himself as a dickhead he ducked his head as if something hard had been thrown at him. She was prettier than any of those chicks on TV! She was full of her own power, not yet humbled by children on the roof or the fat that appeared on her upper thighs so that now when she walked her upper thighs rubbed uncomfortably together and she would never again in a million years wear a pair of small shorts and stride out, fearless, along Ipswich Road.
There was a knock at the door. She finished her fag, stubbing it out in the upturned peanut butter lid she kept on the bedside table for that purpose. There was another knock, louder than the first.
It was bloody Melissa from across the road.
'Kyles, are you there? Nixon and Jarrah are on the roof again.'
She lay back down, flat, in the bed.
'Kylie! Your kids are on the roof! If one of them falls off he's gunna crack his skull. Open the fucking door.'
She hoped she'd locked the fucking door or else Melissa would walk straight in like she usually did. Kylie quickly calculated whether the back door was also locked, since Mel was likely to storm around the back when she had no luck at the front.
She heard Mel rattle the handle and give the door a good shove. Kylie's bedroom was next to the front door and she was gripped by the irrational thought that Mel could see her through the wall, lying there in her nightie, flattened against the pillow. She heard Mel's mobile go off, two loud beeps that made Kylie jump.
'I know you're in there. I'm going round the back.' Mel sounded so close she might have been speaking into Kylie's ear.
The kids never used the doors to climb onto the roof anyway. They climbed out Nixon's window instead, standing on the chest of drawers, balancing on the window ledge, then jumping onto the water tank outside. The tank had a pipe leading to the roof that they easily scaled.
Mel was outside her bedroom window. She hadn't gone round the back at all.
'I just want to say one thing. You're a crap mother.'
Kylie felt a sick, startled lurch. A crap mother! Was she a crap mother? She made them clean their teeth every night and she washed their clothes and put nit cream in their hair every time they caught lice from dirty children. She hardly ever made them wear the same T-shirt twice, scrubbing stains from dripped ice-creams and dropped chunks of spaghetti bolognaise or from where they'd wiped the backs of their hands or their fingers when they had a runny nose. Kids were so dirty, dripping, running, leaking vessels of tears, and Kylie kept the spill in as best she could. She hugged them and pulled funny faces so that Jarrah laughed so hard his stomach hurt and once, memorably, Nixon laughed so hard he let out a great big bang of a fart that made them all start laughing so hard all over again that Kylie feared they might never stop and all of them would start bursting from laughing, splitting their stomachs open, everything spilling out of them, rush, rush, rush, so that they really would die laughing. The three of them, dying, laughing on the floor, crying with tears, farting helplessly, and never, never stopping.
A crap mother! She was so tired of vigilance. She was tired of having eyes in the back of her head and of getting up from the chair to turn off the television because she knew she couldn't let them keep watching it for another three hours even though if she could she would have let them keep watching their entire lives. They fought all the time, endlessly, when they weren't watching it, and sometimes even when they were. Either Jarrah got a bigger slice than Nixon or else Nixon kept stealing Jarrah's favourite pillow, and every time she got in the car (when it wasn't broken and when she had enough money for petrol), every single time, they squabbled about who was going to sit in the front. Kylie wasn't even sure they were big enough to sit in the front, anyway, since neither of them could see over the dashboard and she remembered hearing somewhere that kids that small shouldn't sit in the front, because if she had an accident because she couldn't stand them screaming or crying or fighting a minute longer the kid in the front would go flying through the windscreen, a perfectly aimed missile of flesh.
Kylie could never make her kids do anything they didn't want to do. It wasn't as if she hadn't tried to stop them from climbing on the fucking roof. She had got them down a million times, over and over, even moving the chest of drawers away from the window, but then she couldn't open the bedroom door properly and she had to move it back again. How did anyone think they could stop the will and desires of another human being, when Kylie knew that neither her mother nor her best friend Donna nor an iron wall could have stopped her walking towards Russell Woodbridge and her wrecked future? People did what they wanted to do, even a five-year-old who had only been at school for a single term, who could force a mother to give him anything he wanted by lying on the kitchen floor, in front of the fridge, rigid, crying, showing his pulsating tonsils, so that a mother would do anything to make him stop.
Kylie heard a familiar sound, a siren, coming from a television or from real life – she couldn't be certain which. In Ningi in summer there were often grass fires and regular controlled burns, but Kylie couldn't smell smoke. The urgent wah-wah drew closer and closer, louder and louder, so that Kylie knew it must be headed somewhere near. From the sound of it, the fire engine might have been headed straight for her street. Curiosity made her get up from the bed and sneak a peek through the bedroom curtains.
It was stopping outside. Firemen rushed toward the house, three or four of them. She saw Mel run down to the street towards them, pointing up at the roof. The firemen kept running and Mel stormed along behind them, stomping through the overgrown grass as hard and as fast as she could. But she didn't go in the direction of the men, instead fixing her eyes on the curtains where Kylie was peeking out. Kylie quickly shut them.
'For your information, your kid is trying to swing on the electrical wires. You'd better come out.'
Kylie pulled off her nightie and pulled over her head the dress crumpled at the end of the bed. She twisted up her hair and secured it with a hairclip.
Before opening the bedroom door she looked at her reflection in the mirrored wardrobe: tired, overweight, sadder than any 24-year-old had the right to be. Nixon loved fire engines.